By Millicent Borges Accardi, Contributor
In this timely interview for the Portuguese American Journal, feminist poet Marina Carreira talks about her writing, tips for life and her lively poetry inspired by Fado music.
From New Jersey’s Ironbound neighborhood, Carreira has roots in the town of Batalha, in Central Portugal which boasts a historical monastery and UNESCO designation. Carreira maintains close ties with her family and Portugal, with regular visits to her ancestral homeland.
She lives today, not far from where her grandfather, Augusto da Trindade Ribeiro, first worked at a clothing store on Ferry Street called “The Gentleman’s Shop,” after immigrating to America in the 1970’s, explaining that her grandfather was a skilled tailor and designer, “He would make me skirts and dresses, sometimes even for my dolls. The most wonderful thing was a Halloween costume when I was six or seven, a custom-made, red and white polka dot flamenco dancer dress!”
Carreira holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University, works as a Program Assistant in the office of student success and retention at Kean University, and teaches college prep, composition, and literature as an adjunct instructor. Her pride and contribution to the community is a monthly literary series called “Brick City Speaks,” which she founded.
She also participates in the popular Kale Soup for the Soul events featuring Portuguese-American authors (reading work about family, food and Luso culture). Most recently she and fellow Ironbound writer PaulA Neves curated a joint event between Brick City Speaks and Kale Soup for the Soul at the Prospect Street Fire Station in Newark, during the week-long Portugal Day celebration.
Her first chapbook, I Sing to That Bird Knowing It Won’t Sing Back, published in May by Finishing Line Press. Individual poems in the collection have appeared in Paterson Literary Review, Acentos Review, and Naugatuck River Review. Her work has also been featured in the Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora anthology from Boavista Press.
This interview appears in honor of her grandfather who passed away last summer.
Q: You were raised in a Portuguese neighborhood in Ironbound?
A: As a kid, the Ironbound was one big Portuguese neighborhood. It was a village really, Portuguese immigrants and their kids filling the streets with our language. I was raised in Luso-owned and operated shops, bakeries, communal spaces, social clubs, bars, restaurants, businesses. Everyone I knew either spoke Portuguese or Spanish, so being “American” and speaking English was being the foreigner to me, really.
Q: Any favorite places?
A: We always went to Teixeira’s for bread and pastries. And, what I loved to do as a kid was go to the bar with my dad on Saturdays. He would take me to Rio Lima. Which is now the famous Seabra’s Marisqueira, and I would sit at the bar, eat dobrada (tripe stew) for lunch, and then get quarters from my dad and his friends to play Pac Man while they watched the soccer game.
More than anything though, I used to love to go to the Dairy Queen on Market Street with my grandfather every Sunday before we would go to Riverbank Park.
Q: Did you attend festas as a child? Adult?
A: Yes, both in Newark and in Portugal. I spent every summer in Portugal as a child until I was 17, so festas celebrating the aldeias and Marian feast days were an integral part of my adolescence. I occasionally attend them now in New Jersey, if I am around and can. Same, if I’m vacationing in Portugal.
Q: What elements of Luso heritage are you passing along to your two daughters, Amalia (5) and Simone (1 1/2)?
A: Besides as much of the language as I can, I try to pass on the food, music, traditions. What I think I try to instill most is the idea of being 1st and second generation; that they (my daughters) are the product of immigration, that they have roots somewhere else outside of New Jersey and that those roots will fill crevices inside them. I want them to explore those crevices, and see Luso/Iberian culture and heritage.
Q: Do you have family in Portugal?
A: My grandfather just passed away, and his death devastated me as much as the fact that I could not attend his funeral in Portugal. But all of my family is there, and have always been (my parents and sister live here in New Jersey). I try to go every other year, not nearly as often as I’d like.
Q: What do you miss about Portugal?
A: Every damn thing. My grandmother, mostly, and her hands. The smell of the ocean (in Nazare), the food. The coffee there is no espresso like a Portuguese espresso. I miss the greetings from strangers on the street. I miss my grandmother’s house, the pinhais behind it. The cobblestone.
Q: What current activities/events tie you to the Portuguese community?
A: I try to involve myself in as many cultural art/literary events as possible, especially in Newark. Brick City Speaks and Kale Soup for the Soul held a reading during Fernando Silva’s called “The New Luso” during the Portugal Day week celebrations in the Ironbound this year (June 2017).
I also had two (mixed media art) works featured in the Newark Portugal Day 2017 Art Exhibit “Portugal Here and There.”
Also, I run a reading series called “Brick City Speaks” where I get local (mostly POC and Luso/women/queer- identified) poets and writers to showcase their work with the local arts community. I’m in the process of actually transitioning the series into a collective (shout-out to Brick City Collective!) of Luso/Latinx/Afro-American Newark-based poets.
So the answer overall (I think) is art. Art (visual/literary) keeps me connected to community, to the sub-communities within the greater Portuguese community in Newark/NYC.
Q: How do you feel about the recent gentrification of Newark?
A: It’s funny you mention this. The Ironbound is actually under attack of gentrification and resident displacement as we speak.
It breaks my heart to know that my hometown will one day look like a main street in Hoboken or downtown Jersey City and not the beautiful, diverse Ironbound of my youth and adolescence; that the people that have lived there for generations are going to be unable to afford living there and will be pushed out.
What is happening to the Ironbound and to many parts of Newark is devastating to the lifelong/year-long Luso, Latinx, and Afro-American residents of this beautiful city. But I have faith that writers and artists and activists will save some part of it. I hope we can.
Q: How are Luso folks in New Jersey different than in California?
A: I’m not quite sure, as I have never met a Cali-born or Cali-based Luso/a, lol, besides yourself. I’m just going to assume West Coast Portuguese-Americans are more laid back then us East Coasters. We are all very anxiety-ridden lol.
Q: Your chapbook I Sing to the Bird, Knowing he Won’t Sing Back—the title reminds me of Maya Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—did that book inspire you?
A: It didn’t, although it is one of my favorite books. I have a weird fascination with birds. They very much symbolize migration, freedom, and survival for me. I think those ideas and motifs run throughout the book.
Q: The book is a series of fado poems. How do you recreate the experience of fado in your poetry?
A: I just want saudade to be there. And it is, so it’s not forced.
From Fados from the Ironbound: Ferry Street
You draw your soft copper
over the high rise and smoke.
When the goose honk of traffic
settles to the din
of a few mice in the attic, you change
from bazaar to vigil
your neon off, streetlamps sound.
Wind— the inhale of a viola.
Q: Your chapbook is dedicated to Amalia. Is she your favorite fado singer?
A: She is. I grew up listening to her, as my father is a huge fan. But it’s actually dedicated to my daughter, who is her namesake.
Fado for My Hands
They shrink a little more each day, like schoolgirls’
dreams of fresh-cut flowers from tall, dark princes.
My hands wait for yours for hours
distracted by dandelion bones.
My fingers wait for yours
like the wives of fishermen
out to sea before dawn.
I want to travel beyond
the banks of these arms,
find a home for my palm in yours, soft
as a rose’s eyelid. Every Spring, my hands wait
for yours to return—glorious and tender
with time, only to discover the tendered
in my fingertips: microscopic and shriveled,
scarred from thorns and storms,
the salt of writing you
great love poems.
Q: If there is one line in the chapbook that you would like to be remembered by, what would it be
A: From “Fado Saudade”
This dreaded finality, this futile desire for the absent, this soft hope, this brooding which moors itself at the harbor of every unfinished dream.
Q: How important is “place” to your poetry? You use New Jersey, NY, landmarks: Ironbound Ferry Street, and Penn Station as touchstones, for example.
A: Places are like people to me. If I meet a place and fall in love with it, respect or admire it, it becomes a part of my landscape, whether that’s a physical space or imaginary. New Orleans is one of those places that don’t “belong” to me but that is very much a part of me on some level I can’t quite grasp. Same with Provincetown, MA and Porto.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your writing
A: I kind of hope that my work helps take people away from the mundane or insufferable moments in life for a bit, to a place where they can revisit or remember something sweet, warm, or kind, or dream about something better.
I also hope my poems let people know that what they feel or supposes about the world is not unusual or uncommon, that they are okay. I want my poems to help people celebrate themselves; that it moves them to action for the betterment of humankind.
Q: Who are your top Portuguese or Portuguese-American writers?
A: Maria Teresa Horta; Fernando Pessoa; Cindy Goncalves and PaulA Neves
Q: Is there a motto you live by?
A: There is a Portuguese saying, or at least I think it’s Portuguese, my Avó used to use all the time that I go back to: “O peixe morre pela boca” (The fish dies by the mouth).
As someone who is very impulsive and extroverted, I tend to let my mouth go off before my mind or heart has had time to fully process something. So it’s a saying I go back to almost every day in order to remind me of the importance of words, their weight, how they can be either stones or saving graces, and to overall watch what I say.
Q: Was there something you would like to discuss that I did not ask?
A: My first full-length poetry collection (tentatively titled Save the Bathwater) is coming out in the spring of 2018, with Get Fresh Books LLC. A little blurb about it:
Save the Bathwater takes a critical look at first-generation childhood in the Ironbound, an urban, immigrant section of Newark, NJ, once home to thousands of Portuguese immigrants. The poems highlight the struggle to forge an identity in the presence of a resilient matriarch (Avó) and in the midst of a troubled family dynamic. They also explore the consequences of growing up in a city unforgiving of the oftentimes gritty reality of a bilingual fat girl. This book unsettles ideas about matriarchy, adolescence, and life in immigrant communities, making visible and troubling what is often overlooked, misunderstood, and romanticized during one’s turbulent journey into adolescence.
Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American writer has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, CantoMundo, Fulbright, the Corporation of Yaddo, and California Arts Council. Her most recent book is Only More So. Find her @TopangaHippie
Marina Carreira is a Luso-American writer from Newark, NJ. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University, and is curator of “Brick City Speaks,” a monthly reading series in Newark. Marina’s chapbook, I Sing to That Bird Knowing It Won’t Sing Back was published May 2017 by Finishing Line Press. Visit her at marinacarreira.com